Last week, Ann Simmons received a National Award for Service to NZNO at the 2020 NZNO AGM. She had prepared a short acceptance speech, but was not given the opportunity to deliver it. In recognition of a career spanning more than 50 years, I am very honoured to be able to publish Ann’s speech notes, below.
“Nurses Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Bedpans!”
Apparently that was the catch cry of a wildcat strike of student nurses I organised in 1968 at Hutt Hospital. It was felt that after working 12 days in a row (we only had one day off in seven and 12-day stints were common) we required a day off before we went into a study day, as many of us were sleeping that day away and not learning. We did achieve this and not much later we were required to work only five days in a week – such progress! – and all for $25.00 a fortnight, in the hand.
Thank goodness for industrial progress. Thank goodness for a recognition that nurses needed professional training. Thank you, NZNA/NZNO.
On Thursday 17th September 2020, I received an Award for Service to NZNO. I was nominated by Denise Braid and the Women’s Health College and by Erin Kennedy and Lizzie Kepa-Henry on behalf of the Greater Wellington Regional Council. I’m told it is unusual for a nomination to be received for the same person from both the ‘professional’ and the ‘industrial’ side of the NZNO. I have been very flattered and my ego received a huge boost by this nomination. Thank you, everyone.
That NZNO has these two sides is a sad fact. But the history of the organisation has recently been the subject of a paper posted by Grant Brookes, and interesting reading it was. It helped me understand and put into context why the events of the recent past within the Union have happened. It also has made me come to the conclusion that it’s time for NZNO to be honest with itself.
In my time with NZNA/NZNO, I have known the organisation employ some amazing nurses as professional advisors and researchers. People like Kate Weston (there is not enough praise for this woman), Jill Clendon, Marilyn Head, Anne Brinkman, Suzanne Rolls, Hilary Graham-Smith. I have learnt so much from these outstanding professionals and from others. They have given me a base that I have used as a bottom line for all my nursing, and for some life decisions. They have been there when the Women’s Health College tackled the hard topic of Family Violence, helping and supporting us to make a difference in women’s lives. When the contentious subject of abortion law reform arrived, Womens Health College also had the support of NZNO Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku to help boost our submissions for law reforms and Kerri to this day is, I believe, still involved on behalf of nurses working in this field.
The nurses I have met along the way who have shown their wisdom and compassion like Lizzy Kepa-Henry, who can always keep me humble and grounded with her work stories. Denise Braid (friend, boss and mentor) and all the wonderful women I have met through the Women’s Health College. Women in New Zealand may not know it, but they are very lucky to have you on their side. Your collective knowledge and wisdom is enormous.
Yet NZNO is not very good at using the professionals they employ or the clinicians who belong to the organisation to speak on matters of importance. Our infection control nurses have been working so hard during this Covid Pandemic but never quoted or asked to speak out.
We hear from the CEO of the organisation and sometimes from a highly placed member of the organisation’s executive team. But we never hear from the people who are living the experience. Nor did we hear from any representative who had been elected by all the members of the NZNO, Grant Brookes for instance. The reasons for this are known to members and leave such a bitter taste in my mouth. Grant has taught me more than anyone about fighting for a cause. Fighting with passion, with logic, with facts, with courage. Being true to yourself and holding true to the values that underpin your life path. Thank you Grant, as a leader, as a fellow nurse and as a friend.
We are again negotiating the DHB MECA. This is happening at a time when there is unrest and probably distrust in the industrial side of this organisation. I have recently been working with nurses from PHOs. Most didn’t even know there was a strike last week for their MECA agreement!
In a traditional sense, it could be argued NZNO is not a Union. It has some components of a Union but at its heart, in its core, it is not. This is in spite of employing amazing people, my experience being Wellington based but not exclusively, like Georgia Choveaux (resigned), Laura Thomas, Danielle Davies, Deb Chappell (retired).
Then there are members, the people who have taught me about the importance of the collective, of justice and fairness. Erin Kennedy, one of the bravest comrades I have ever known, Simon Bayliss, Anne Daniels, Katrina Hopkinson, Cheryl Hanham, Jenny Kendall, Annie McCabe, Al Dietschin, Freya Albertine-Head. And definitely many more. Many of whom have resigned as delegates or left the organisation altogether. The loss of these people leaves a gaping hole in the collective knowledge of the Union.
NZNO, thank you for the award. My hope is that what I now see as an identity crisis will be resolved. Nurses in New Zealand need our professionalism to be recognised and enhanced. We have a Chief Nurse but she/he is not part of this, at least not visibly. Look again at the Covid Crisis I haven’t heard a thing about the Chief Nurse, even though Nurses are at the core of the care. That is a disconnect that needs addressing.
Nurses need someone to fight for their working conditions and their wages. This means brave people to stand and fight against massive organisations such as DHBs, Aged Care Facilities, large medical companies, powerful Iwi health providers and the Government (whatever its colour)
This is not a fight for the faint hearted or for an organisation whose roots are firmly planted within a bed of compliance and complacency – of the old era.
My hope is that NZNO decides what it is, a Union with the balls to fight for its members or an organisation that supports and encourages professionalism, working more with the Chief Nurse and her/his office and with the NZ Nursing Council.
My opinion is that the time to try and be both has passed. So NZNO, as the song from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy goes: “So long and thanks for all the fish, so sad it has to come to this.”
Ann Simmons, RN RM (mostly retired and Proud to Nurse) • Past Chair and member Greater Wellington Regional Council NZNO • Past Chair and member of national team Women’s Health (section) College NZNO • Past Union delegate NZNO
Members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation have until Friday, 11 September to cast their vote. For the fifth time in three years, we’re being asked to elect people for positions on the NZNO Board. Voting on remits (proposed alterations to NZNO’s Constitution and policies) is taking place at the same time.
As Board resignations and by-elections have escalated, there’s been a growing sense of confusion and powerlessness among NZNO members. With the future of the organisation on the line, some have asked me for advice on what to do. As an NZNO member myself, it’s something I’ve pondered long and hard. The turmoil at the top of New Zealand’s second largest trade union and the traditional voice of nursing in this country is raising concern well beyond the ranks of the NZNO membership, as well.
My key messages to my fellow members have been twofold:
Voting in the 2020 NZNO elections is important
Voting alone will not be enough, sadly, to pull NZNO out of its current troubles.
My thoughts on the Board elections and remits come later, in section 6 of this long-form article. But first I need to explain why voting alone won’t be enough. Understanding the background, and how the wider social context has contributed to NZNO’s woes, might help guide other actions to fix things. I end on these other actions, including what they mean for bread and butter issues like the 2020 DHB MECA, in section 7.
The current turmoil in NZNO broke out in 2018. I give an account of the last two years in section 4. But the roots of the problems run deep. They can be traced back to the early years of our organisation, because when NZNO was founded in 1909, it started out as an anti-union organisation.
In response, the first issue of Kai Tiaki after the formation of NZNO contained this warning from inaugural president Hester Maclean:
“We must, however, guard against any elements of trade unionism creeping in among us. A nurse must be a woman, working, not in the first place for the sake of money-making, but for the good of her fellow creatures to alleviate suffering when she can and help towards health for those who need her care.”
This remained a core part of her leadership. In her memoirs written 23 years later, Maclean recalled NZNO’s biggest achievements. “One of the first important steps taken by the Association”, she said, “was to protest against a clause in a Hospital Bill then before the House, which would have made compulsory an eight hour day for all nurses in hospitals.”
The Hospitals Act 1909 limited working hours for student nurses to 56-hours a week. But thanks to NZNO’s protest, there was no limit on the hours that RNs could be made to work – morning to night, seven days a week.
The anti-union stance at the top of the organisation persisted through the ensuing decades. The First Labour Government, elected in 1935 under Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, announced a bold goal of unionising all workers. The idea was popular among nurses. But president Cecilia McKenny told the 1941 NZNO Annual General Meeting, “Unions, however valuable, with their demands and possible strikes, have no place in nursing. Nursing is very much more giving than getting.”
In the 1950s, as momentum grew for pay equity in the public sector, NZNO refused to join with the PSA and other unions to win it, out of fear of seeming “political” or Left wing. NZNO managed to achieve recognition as a negotiator of employment conditions for nurses without embracing trade unionism.
This conservative, anti-union stance reflected the fact that NZNO was a professional organisation for nurses, but one that was run by hospital matrons (the nurse executives of the day), alongside Health Department officials and, in later years, nursing academics. For the first half of its existence, NZNO was a niche association for a minority of the profession willing to submit to this regime.
Attitudes at the top started to shift in the 1970s. But at the end of that decade, membership of NZNO still comprised only a third of the 30,000 RNs and ENs practising in New Zealand.
The transformation of our organisation into a mass membership trade union representing the whole profession didn’t get under way in earnest until the 1980s. Hand in hand with this transformation was a struggle to democratise the organisation and take it out of the hands of the nurse executives and government health officials.
“Democracy, participation and structure were the organisational issues of the 1980s for nurses”, observed feminist historian Linda Hill. The situation inside NZNO in 1981, as she describes it, might sound depressingly familiar:
“Senior nurses… attended its evening meetings while others worked shifts. Their presence discouraged staff nurses from speaking up at branch meetings; enrolled nurses and aides were probably unaware they could attend… Yet decisions from such unrepresentative meetings, backed by the membership numbers of the whole region, led to policy at national level… The hierarchical organisation within [NZNO] was not designed to hear or respond to membership views”.
But thanks to a decade-long battle by a group of union activists, largely from the Greater Auckland Region of NZNO, there was a complete overhaul of the NZNO Constitution. By the time NZNO formally registered as a union and went on strike for the first time in 1989, “the internal political groundwork had already been done to transform [NZNO] from a senior nurses’ club into a organisation which represented members lower in the nursing hierarchy.”
In his first interview as the new NZNO chief executive in 2013, however, Memo Musa revealed a desire to roll back these changes and revive older ideas and attitudes. For him, NZNO was primarily a professional association. Our trade unionism was to be relegated once again to a subordinate, supporting role.
Asking himself, “What drives NZNO’s agenda?”, he said:
“Is it nursing as a professional body or is it industrial relations? From my value base, it is nursing as a profession… The industrial relations component supports the nursing profession; that’s how I see the balance playing out.”
This was not surprising, coming from a former Ministry official and DHB chief executive who in 2007 had gone as far as issuing a trespass notice banning union representatives from entering the workplace at Whanganui Hospital.
After encountering early internal resistance to his ideas (for example, around his extreme proposal to redefine union members as “customers” of NZNO), the NZNO chief executive rarely nailed his colours to the mast like this again. But behind the scenes the ideas and attitudes remained, to re-emerge at critical junctures.
At the 2015 NZNO AGM, he argued that the unions were in decline and NZNO’s future lay in Increasing its role as a professional association. When NZNO’s Strategic Plan 2015-2020 was opened up for review and renewal at the February 2019 Board meeting, he pushed even further in this direction:
“The chief executive drew the Board’s attention to the previous strategic plan process where the description of NZNO was changed in 2015 from a “union and professional association” to a “professional association and union”, reflecting a stronger emphasis on promoting the profession. The chief executive acknowledged that NZNO needs to do more to profile the nursing profession and advised that the media have been able to cherry-pick information about NZNO activities making a stronger reference to being a ‘union’ than a ‘nursing professional association’. The chief executive said that over time, he has explained to various reporters that the bulk of NZNO’s work is professional in its content.”
Then there was the curious case of his speech to the 2018 NZNO Regional Conventions.
The three members of the NZNO leadership team – president, kaiwhakahaere and chief executive – had each been asked to speak about, “Approaches to overcome barriers to membership participation”. The topic, set the year before, was being well and truly overtaken by events. By the time of the first Regional Convention in April 2018, members in the DHBs were rising up. “Barriers to membership participation” were being smashed.
Yet in his speech to that first convention in Christchurch, the chief executive expressed the belief that members were not participating in NZNO. And to explain this perceived problem, he cited a four year-old membership satisfaction survey. Completed by less than one percent of members (376 people), the 2014 survey report contained a single comment on the final page that “a small minority” of these 376 people felt that NZNO had a “left wing bias”. This, said Musa, was a reason why members don’t participate.
After this first Regional Convention, it was suggested to the chief executive that the DHB MECA ratification votes in December 2017 and March 2018 had seen membership participation on a scale greater than anything in our union’s history. Yet as membership participation continued to smash records in subsequent MECA votes, the chief executive ignored the overwhelming evidence and clung to his ideological position in speeches to the other conventions.
To Memo Musa, NZNO’s problem is not only that it’s too much like a union. It is also too far to the Left.
Over breakfast with Helen Kelly one morning in 2015, not long after her diagnosis, the former president of the Council of Trade Unions asked me bluntly – How the hell did the Whanganui DHB chief executive end up at the head of our union?
Having been an NZNO Board member in 2013, I knew exactly how it happened. I was there when the Board met to decide who the new chief executive would be. Confidentiality obligations prevent me from sharing information about that meeting – who was in favour, and how the decision was reached to appoint Memo Musa. But for readers of this article, there would be no great surprises if I did. And even though I knew then just a fraction of what I know now, I can say that I still personally voted against hiring him.
Top-level conservatism and aversion to trade unionism, however, are not the only problems now facing NZNO with deep historical roots. The wider social context contributing to NZNO’s present woes also include changes in Te Ao Māori.
3. Bicultural partnership?
For most of the last century, the prevailing view in the Māori world was that the aspirations of tāngata whenua were aligned with the goals of the labour movement. This was famously expressed in 1936, at a high-profile meeting between Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana and newly-elected Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage.
In 1928, 10 years after his first religious visions, T.W. Rātana founded a political movement which grew in the space of a few short years to number 40,000 strong. The alliance with the dominant political wing of the labour movement, cemented at that historic meeting in 1936, brought together the struggles to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to liberate working people. Speaking afterwards in the Wanganui Chronicle, Rātana told of a prophecy made by King Tāwhiao in 1869 that, “When the shoemakers, watchmakers, blacksmiths and carpenters rule this country then will the Māori people receive their salvation.”
The Māori resurgence of the 1970s built on this alliance. In the historic 1975 Land March led by Whina Cooper, the organising group took out newspaper advertisements appealing for support from all working people. These advertisements explained why they wanted Pākehā involvement:
“We see no difference between the aspirations of Maori people and the desire of workers in their struggles. We seek the support of workers and organisations, as the only viable bodies which have sympathy and understanding of the Maori people and their desires.”
None of this was to suggest that all Pākehā trade unionists were somehow free from racism, or that every union supported Te Tiriti. Rather, it was a strategic recognition by the organisers that, “The people who are oppressing the workers are the same who are exploiting the Maori today.”
Historian Aroha Harris (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) describes the positive response: “The considerable support of Pākehā sent the message that Māori were not the only ones who were fed up with racial discrimination and unjust laws in Aotearoa.”
Labour governments from Michael Joseph Savage up until the present day have done more to improve the lives of the people than any of the others. But there’s one thing they have conspicuously failed to do. They not fulfilled King Tāwhiao’s prophecy. Working people are no closer to ruling this country today than we were 85 years ago, and Māori still do not have equity.
After six decades of failing to honour Te Tiriti, strains in the relationship between Māori and the Labour Party were apparent for all to see by the 1990s. In 2004 the historic alliance finally snapped and the new Māori Party arose to claim independent political leadership.
This justified and long-overdue move, however, would soon produce far-reaching, adverse effects. Freed from the last historic linkages to the labour movement, the prevailing view in the Māori world found a new social alignment. This is because, as prominent Māori leader Annette Sykes has explained (in an essay worth reading in full):
“The same period saw the rise of a Maori elite within the process of litigating, negotiating and then implementing Treaty settlements, many of whom have become active sycophants of the broader neo-liberal agenda… An aura has built up around these Iwi leaders who, in tandem with the Maori Party, are now treated as the authorised voices of all Maori.”
“In the process, the reality of our people has been lost sight of…. Given this history, it is not surprising that one of the strongest criticisms of the [Māori elite] is that it is not democratic and is made up of a very small sector of the Maori community who has little, if any, direct accountability to the whanau and hapu it serves.”
After gravitating to this “upper layer of Maori society, created to engage with the Crown”, it was only a small step for the ascendant Māori Party to forge a new alliance between tāngata whenua and the political representatives of New Zealand’s corporate elite.
For nine long years, the Māori Party supplied the votes in Parliament to prop up a Right wing National Party government. For three full parliamentary terms, as austerity and cuts created growing misery (especially for Māori) and workers’ rights were stripped away, they clung to an alliance with the elites.
In 2011, the tensions of supporting a government that was making life worse for their people split the Māori Party. Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira broke away to form the anti-neoliberal, pro-worker MANA Party. At each successive election, the Māori Party lost seats, until finally it was voted out completely in 2017. Today there is an acknowledgement by the party that supporting National was unpopular with Māori – most of whom are working class, like the rest of us. But doubts remain that the alignment of the Māori Party has fundamentally changed – prompted for example by the recent election of John Tamihere as party co-leader.
A career chief executive, Tamihere was once asked what he thought about the power of the unions. Where the Land Marchers had spoken of unions as “the only viable bodies which have sympathy and understanding of the Maori people and their desires”, Tamihere said: “Unions? I can’t stand them”.
And where the Land Marchers had appealed for Pākehā support, John Tamihere suggests that every Pākehā is a racist (and those who don’t seem like one are simply “asymptomatic racists”).
In this worldview, genuine unity in struggle is impossible. The people oppressing Māori are not holding down workers, too. The oppressors are the Pākehā workers themselves. This false and divisive perspective destroys union solidarity between working people of different ethnic backgrounds. Attempts to win non-Māori away from their lingering personal racism and forge genuine bicultural partnerships are pointless. Wherever possible, it’s better to simply shut down democracy and exclude them from decision-making.
These developments in Te Ao Māori have also contributed to NZNO’s current woes.
Like the “Māori elite” described above, the currently authorised voice of all Māori inside NZNO is an undemocratic body which has little, if any, direct accountability to the thousands of Māori NZNO members it serves.
In a moment of candour, not long after I was elected as president, kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku told me she didn’t really believe in unions. This is not as surprising as it might sound. After all, she has never been active as a trade unionist in the workplace, and Companies Office records show a long history of directorships and major shareholdings in multiple businesses.
Whatever the personal political allegiances of individuals, a worldview emanating from the Māori Party prevails at the top of Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa NZNO. The divisive and anti-union perspective which comes with it reinforces the direction of travel under the NZNO chief executive.
4. Years of turmoil, days of hope
“2018 – It’s been some year”, observed the headline of the editorial in the December issue of Kai Tiaki. It was referring, of course, to the momentous DHB strike in July that year and the wave of member-led change it unleashed both inside and outside of NZNO.
The wave of change arrived in December 2017, when members in the DHB Sector voted to reject a poor MECA offer which had been recommended to them by the NZNO negotiating team. It was the first time that NZNO members had ever rebelled against their leaders on a national scale like this, and it set off a chain reaction.
Every single step forward towards the final result, which delivered a whopping $300 million extra and a promise of jobs for every new grad, was powered by the unity and determination of the membership. Those were heady days of hope.
In June 2018, members voted for two 24-hour nationwide strikes. When the decision to call off the first strike was confirmed on 29 June, at a 10.30am meeting between Memo Musa and Cee Payne, the outrage reverberated around every hospital in the country. The response was told through media headlines – “Activists seeking NZNO reform following DHB deal”.
Once again, as in the 1980s, the reform was spearheaded by a group of activists from Auckland. Calling themselves the NZNO Members Action Group (MAG), and working through the Greater Auckland Regional Council of NZNO, they submitted a paper for the NZNO AGM in September. The paper, duly circulated to all NZNO member groups, outlined the case for change. Their number one proposal was: “That an external independent evaluation of NZNOs DHB MECA negotiating process and the NZNO Bargaining Policy is conducted.”
The idea of independent review was then raised at Special Meeting of the NZNO Board on 15 August 2018. The minutes of that meeting record how the chief executive managed to block it:
“A Board member asked whether the planned review of the DHB MECA bargaining should be conducted externally. The chief executive said that the first thing to do is to establish the terms of reference for the review, and then determine who has the expertise to deliver.”
“The Industrial Services Manager [Cee Payne] advised that the bargaining process involved a lot of work regarding approach, communications, social media and campaigning which need to be looked at in a review. She advised that she is willing to lead the review.”
But but as MAG groups started popping up in centres outside of Auckland, calls for reform grew louder.
On 17 September, two days before the 2018 NZNO AGM, the kaiwhakahaere raised doubts about whether AGM delegates should be allowed to vote on the MAG proposals. The chief executive immediately picked up on the suggestion. On 18 September, after speaking with a lawyer, he declared that they could not be voted on. Going further, he added that the MAG paper had not been properly submitted and implied that it should be pulled from the AGM agenda entirely.
I put my foot down. As co-chair of the AGM due to take place the following day, I rejected his advice. I said we would put it to the meeting to make a democratic decision on whether to allow the MAG paper to be discussed.
The rest is history. The member revolt that took place on the conference floor at the 2018 NZNO AGM was captured in pages of Kai Tiaki.
After the AGM, the chief executive dutifully announced that the DHB MECA review would be conducted externally – falsely claiming that it was “not in response to a resolution from the Greater Auckland Regional (GAR) Council” and that the “the management team [which included Cee Payne] had already recommended to the Board that a full review be undertaken by an independent, external person”.
But that was not the only reform passed at the 2018 NZNO AGM. Angered by the recommendation in December 2017 to accept a MECA offer that was $300 million short, members voted to change the Constitution to remove the ability of NZNO negotiators to recommend any offers in future.
And most far-reaching of all, they passed a remit inaugurating NZNO’s bold new experiment in democracy – the “one member, one vote” system. From now on, all proposed alterations to NZNO’s Constitution and policies would be subject to a democratic ballot of all financial members.
When the result of voting on this remit was announced at the AGM – 57 percent in favour, to 43 percent against – the kaiwhakahaere was visibly surprised. She had believed she’d secured enough votes to defeat it. The “one member, one vote” system immediately became the focus of attacks from her people at the top of Te Rūnanga – an early sign of the clampdown on democracy to come.
But the wave of member-led change continued rolling on into 2019. When the chief executive refused to commit to releasing Ross Wilson’s report on the DHB MECA, a member petition organised the MAGs forced his hand. In the 2019 NZNO elections, MAG candidates won four of the five Board seats they contested.
And a bid by the kaiwhakahaere and the outgoing Board to remove me from office as NZNO president failed, when members voted to reject their motion at a Special General Meeting (SGM) in September.
By the end of 2019, plans for the 2020 DHB MECA were looking radically different from last time. Of those who led the 2018 MECA bargaining and campaign, not a single NZNO staff member would be left. And the first round of consultation on NZNO’s new strategic plan, completed by December, delivered a very clear result: “Demonstrating that NZNO is a membership-driven organisation – this was by far the strongest message to come through from almost everyone”. The message came not only from all the member groups. It came from the NZNO staff, too.
Although much less visible than the wave of member activism, the role of staff in pushing back against the anti-union conservatism at the top of NZNO also hit the public eye in 2019, when an edited letter of complaint to NZNO management was published on Facebook. The “multiple front line staff” who signed the letter made clear that they were speaking as frontline advocates for members, who wanted change. But this letter was to pale in comparison with what was to come.
On 13 December 2019, in an action unheard of in a New Zealand trade union, the staff of NZNO held stopwork meetings around the country in protest against NZNO management. Out of these meetings came a collective letter to the NZNO chief executive about the “increasingly dysfunctional employment relationship between NZNO management and NZNO employees”:
“As a union, we expect NZNO to be committed to the principles of unionism, specifically the principles of natural justice, and to good faith obligations. A more traditional ‘top down’ management approach, that may be standard practice in non-unionised sites, does not meet the expectations of NZNO staff.”
In summary, the wave of member-led change in 2018 and 2019 resulted in great strides forward for NZNO. But it also created enormous turmoil. A chief executive and and kaiwhakahaere who are committed to curbing democracy, downgrading NZNO’s trade unionism and steering the organisation towards the Right politically have collided with a membership moving in the opposite direction. This is the root cause of the turmoil, which is now set to get worse.
5. A wave of reaction
In March and April 2020, five of the eleven NZNO Board members resigned. Although the vice-president, the three from the Members Action Group and I were by no means always on the same page, we had three things in common. We were dedicated trade unionists, we were committed to democracy and we were politically in tune with the direction the membership were heading. Once we were forced out, the counter-balance at the top of NZNO was removed. A wave of reaction has now been unleashed, aimed at reversing the last two years of progress.
At the start of May, I was asked who are the “shadowy forces” behind the Board’s bid to remove me from office last year and to stem the tide of member-led change. At that time, I chose not to name them, suggesting instead that, “If people continue to push to make NZNO genuinely membership-driven and bicultural through a new Constitution, as I suggest in my latest blog, then the “shadowy forces” will become known through their resistance to this change.”
And so it is proving to be.
In June, a member petition for a Special General Meeting calling for fresh Board elections was rejected by the chief executive, based once again on questionable legal advice. Two loyal insiders at the top of Te Rūnanga, close to the kaiwhakahaere, launched a very poorly worded petition aiming to stop NZNO to petition for SGMs in future. This attempt to block members from exercising their democratic rights under the NZNO Constitution was supported by the Kaiwhakahaere.
Also in June, according to Kai Tiaki, the kaiwhakahaere pulled her support for the draft NZNO Strategic Plan 2021-25. The draft reflected the overwhelming feedback from 2019 that the new plan must be about “demonstrating that NZNO is a membership-driven organisation”. Instead of this, Kerri Nuku reportedly wants a stronger focus on what she calls “biculturalism”. She also wants less of a focus on the DHB Sector, where the majority of our union members (Māori and non-Māori alike) are based.
There are unlikely to be major changes to the draft NZNO Strategic Plan 2021-25 at this late stage, given that it’s been approved by the Board, sent for final consultation to all member groups and is due to be formally adopted at the AGM next month. What’s more likely to happen is that it will be adopted without the blessing of the kaiwhakahaere, then sit in a drawer for the next five years gathering dust while her agenda sets the direction.
Then in July, a “Special Hui ā-Tau” convened by the kaiwhakahaere met to consider Policy Remit 2 – Full independent review of the Constitution, submitted by the NZNO Mental Health Nurses Section and Cancer Nurses College. CNC vice-chair Kirstin Wagteveld explained to Kai Tiaki that, “the aim of the joint remit was to ensure that the constitution has a “careful and thorough independent review” to ensure democratic processes, and the one-member-one-vote process was adhered to”. In a message to college members, she added that, “It is not our intention to alter the bicultural foundation of the constitution- rather it is to strengthen the protections within the relationship and produce a guiding document which helps to unite rather than divide members”.
The Special Hui ā-Tau decided not to endorse the remit. It will probably never be known who, or how many people participated in the decision to oppose this attempt to ensure democracy, strengthen the bicultural foundation and unite rather than divide members. In all likelihood it was a dozen or two of the kaiwhakahaere’s close supporters, out of the 4,000-strong membership of Te Rūnanga.
“That the NZNO invest in an internal reconciliation and dialogue process for employed NZNO staff, independently managed and facilitated, to address the issues arising from the 2017-18 DHB MECA Bargaining process and any damage done to personal and working relationships, with the objective of restoring respect, communication and cooperation within the NZNO paid workforce.”
It was unanimously agreed that damage to personal and working relationships on the Board also needed to be addressed. A year after Ross Wilson’s report was released, no reconciliation meetings have been held. For the Board, it looks unlikely they ever will.
Having secured total control at the top of the organisation, there is no longer any pretence about engagement with different perspectives through a democratic process. Dissenting views are to be crushed – and typically branded as “racist”. This, more than anything, is now driving NZNO’s decline. Nurses who don’t feel they’re heard or reflected in NZNO structures are simply going elsewhere.
Monthly membership of NZNO peaked at 52,712, at the conclusion of DHB MECA bargaining in September 2018. When the 2018/19 Annual Report was published the following year, membership at 31 March 2019 was down to 52,093. An email sent to all NZNO members on 13 September 2019, reporting the Board election results, said that the number of eligible voters (NZNO members) was 50,946 – an overall decline of 1,766 on the previous year.
NZNO membership normally dips a little after a DHB MECA is settled, before starting to pick up again a few months later. But this was clearly something different. It was the first drop in annual membership for NZNO since the late 1960s.
Membership has not recovered. In June, Kai Tiaki reported that NZNO membership stood at 50,950. (Addendum 11/09/2020: And when the latest NZNO election results were reported today, 11 September 2020, membership had dropped to 50,418). The lack of growth in 2020, a year when the DHB MECA is being re-negotiated, does not bode well. Up until now, membership numbers have always surged in a MECA year. Based on historical patterns, further membership decline next year looks likely. This is a serious problem, when NZNO’s three-year budgets are set on the assumption of ongoing annual growth.
Even more telling than the numbers, however, is who they’re losing – people who built the union. And it’s what they’re losing – credibility and authority.
A small organisation registered a new, rival nursing union in December 2018. It now claims 5,500 members, and a right to speak on behalf of nursing in New Zealand. Hundreds of Mental Health and Public Health Nurses have switched unions and joined the PSA. NZNO’s status as the unrivalled union for nurses and the voice of the profession is being eroded.
The direction of NZNO’s evolution is now backwards, towards its earlier incarnation as a niche professional body, suspicious of trade unionism and democracy, representing a minority of New Zealand nurses.
6. The 2020 NZNO election
It should now be clear why electing four Board members isn’t going to be nearly enough, on its own, to pull NZNO out of its current troubles.
Exercising our democratic rights however is important. So I will be voting and encourage others to do the same. There might be as many as two or three candidates (certainly no more than that) who would try to work for the membership as a whole, if elected. But the sad fact is, given the current line-up, any possible permutation of Board members holding office after September will leave the people unleashing reaction with a tighter grip on power than they had after the last election.
That has implications also for the voting on remits, which this time round are probably more important than the Board election itself.
According to Clause 9.1.1 of the NZNO Constitution, an all-member ballot is the highest decision-making authority of NZNO. The outcome of voting on remits is constitutionally binding upon the Board. But unfortunately, the people on the Board – and a majority of those who will be on the Board after September – do not actually believe that.
“A Constitutional review was finally agreed by the Board last December. The terms of reference for this review were to be presented at this year’s NZNO AGM. Not that I expect this will happen now. If a review does eventually go ahead, it will be directed by entrenched interests that created the Constitution and defend it to this day.”
This prediction has been borne out. The Board’s so-called “terms of reference” for their “review” consist of five bullet points which specify nothing meaningful, leaving the Board free to do more or less as it chooses. The document also omits vital information about core parts of the Constitution which the Board has decided to exclude from their review – Clauses 1-5 (including Vision, Mission and Philosophy), clauses 25.2.3 (Remit Committee) and 29 (Voting for Constitutional and Policy Remits), and Schedule Three (Election of Board members).
I believe that a Board under the present leadership will actively block a full independent review of the NZNO Constitution, if this remit passes. But that at least would would further expose the anti-democratic agenda that must eventually be rooted out. So I encourage all members to vote for Policy Remit 2.
I also wrote Constitution Remit 3. The intent of what I wrote in that remit is to acknowledge Tino Rangatiratanga – and to protect the right of self-determination for the (entire) Māori membership. Only on this basis, I believe, can we one day achieve genuine partnership based on the ideals of reciprocity and mutual benefit.
If it is passed, however, those in power today will use it for different purposes. They will use it not only in service of Māori self-determination, but to exert control over other groups of NZNO members as well. This does create a dilemma.
But I believe that rules have to be based on principles, and written with a good and reasonable person in mind. You can’t write your rules around the small number of people in any group who don’t fit that description, because they will find a way to get around or misuse anything you draft.
On that basis, I support Tino Rangatiratanga and I believe that a good and reasonable person would use the wording proposed in the Remit only in pursuit of this. So I will be voting for the Constitutional Remit I wrote. I will also understand if others vote based on how the kaiwhakahaere and Board are likely to misuse it.
I will be voting against Constitution Remit 1 – Board Powers. Democracy is being rapidly rolled back already inside NZNO. This remit would probably result in some unelected accountant or lawyer from outside being brought in to help govern our organisation for us. To resolve the turmoil being created at the top of NZNO, we don’t need an independent director. We need the independent review of our Constitution proposed in Policy Remit 2.
By comparison, the rest of the Remits are inconsequential. I have no thoughts on these worth sharing.
7. The way forward
Bargaining is now under way in New Zealand’s biggest collective employment agreement, the DHB MECA. Heading into those negotiations is a union with fewer members than last time, who are now much less engaged, and a government that is stronger and talking openly of financial restraint. A repeat of those heady days of 2018 is looking decidedly unlikely. More likely is a half-hearted campaign and a mediocre outcome which – coupled with the conclusion of the painfully drawn out DHB pay equity process – worsens the member exodus.
To shore up its membership, the NZNO MECA negotiating team has presented a claim to the DHBs to, ”Ensure members of other unions do not receive the benefits of the NZNO/DHB MECA”. This claim, designed to make NZNO membership more advantageous and attractive, has been the subject of criticism on social media.
Aiming to build up union membership during bargaining is more than justified. It should be an automatic part of the plan. But asking employers to help drive your recruitment is at best a short-term fix which will create bigger problems down the track. When any union starts to rely on employer favours like this, it starts to look less like an organisation for the workers. In NZNO’s case, it fails to address the fundamental problem. Under its current leadership, NZNO is not an organisation that nurses and healthcare workers trust and feel proud to be part of.
Four brief general points can be made about the way forward. Firstly, the loss NZNO’s status as the unrivalled union for nurses and voice of the profession, and the rise of others, means that restoring nursing unionism and voice in this country will require work outside, as well as inside of NZNO.
Secondly, history has shown – twice – how to fix NZNO. In the 1980s, as recounted in section 1 above, a small group of union activists dug in for a long-term campaign. But it took the mobilisation of the membership in large-scale industrial action to deliver the power needed to democratise the organisation, remove the brake on membership growth and oust the conservative elite from the top. The same thing happened – sadly, only temporarily and partially – in 2018-19.
Based on this, the most important action that members can take right now to save NZNO is to build on the Primary Health Care workers strike that happened on 3 September. On its own, it won’t be big enough to deliver the power for change. But if it can inspire ongoing union action, then as a tributary to the river of member power, that strike will help provide the pressure for change.
Thirdly, we have to reject the false dichotomy between Te Tiriti and democracy. As hard as it might be to work through the tensions, we can and must strengthen our commitment to both. That’s what genuine bicultural partnership means.
We can build in protections for minority interests and Tiriti rights, like those in Constitution Remit 3, while pushing to democratise NZNO – and democratise Te Rūnanga, as well. The alternative is to proceed further down the path of division which weakens our union and ultimately serves only the corporate elites.
Finally, it’s time for me to turn around one of my earlier statements. When I was asked by Kai Tiaki in May to comment on the role of personalities in the Board’s 2019 bid to remove me from office and stem the tide of member-led change, I replied: “It’s about an individual, but it’s not about an individual. It’s about getting NZNO’s system and its democratic processes working.”
But so much power is now concentrated in the hands of so few, who are so disconnected from the needs and aspirations of the majority of the membership, that getting NZNO’s system and its democratic processes working will now require the departure of certain individuals.
Given the current wave of reaction within NZNO and the wider social factors without, the prospects for a repeat uprising to achieve it any time soon look dim. It’s going to be a tough few years. But I live in hope that it will happen again, before too long.
Our Revolution – A Future to Believe In is the book written by Bernie Sanders at the end of his campaign to be the 2016 Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States. For his supporters, the months leading up to his eventual loss to Hilary Clinton in July that year were a time of exhilaration and heartbreak.
As someone whose own election campaign for the presidency of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation was launched just a month before Bernie’s, I count myself among that group. During those rollercoaster months in 2015 and 2016, I was one of the millions around the world who felt a strong connection to Bernie and his “democratic socialist” campaign.
This book is a product of that time. But until there’s a sequel, it remains – like the campaign itself – valuable for the world today.
Our Revolution is really three books in one. The introduction and chapters 5 and 6 are an account of his bid for the Democratic Party nomination. The excitement and the incredible enduring impact of that bid leapt from the page. For me, a seasoned activist myself, it contained useful tips for anyone running a grassroots campaign.
Chapters 1 to 4 are a political autobiography. It’s short and inevitably glosses over a lot, but I felt I knew Bernie better for reading it and my convictions were only strengthened as a result.
But the bulk of the work – the last two thirds or more – comprises Bernie’s detailed manifesto. Titled “An Agenda For a New America”, it was interesting. But with a few exceptions – like the section on “real family values” (pp.235-239), where Bernie’s burning passion shines through – most of it just wasn’t that exciting.
Part of the problem for me was the proliferation of graphs, tables and long excerpts from old news stories. I got the sense that Bernie understood, in places, that the details of his manifesto wouldn’t be inspiring to most readers. “Let’s face it”, he says while tackling the growing ability of very wealthy people to buy elections, “campaign finance reform is not exactly a sexy issue” (p. 201).
Another part of the problem was an over-reliance on policy solutions from the past, rather than answering the question, “what is to be done?”, through a rigorous analysis of current conditions. “I know that I’m a bit old fashioned”, he admits (p.346). Bernie also seems too keen to stress that many of these past solutions come from the Republican Party.
But at a more fundamental level, Bernie’s solutions seem (to this reader in New Zealand) to be very moderate, nationalistic (especially the chapter on higher education, which seems to be mainly about how to make US companies more internationally competitive) and simply not up to the job.
The issues he describes are huge. And too many of Bernie’s solutions don’t get to the root of the problem.
“Defeating oligarchy”, he says in chapter 1 of his manifesto, means ending “the power of money”. His key policies to achieve this (p.204) are to limit the amount that an individual or corporation can spend to promote a candidate or party, to make public disclosure of campaign donations mandatory and to make public funding available to finance political campaigns. These are all worthy policies, to be sure. But they would hardly make a dint in “the power of money” in America.
Bernie acknowledges, in passing, that “the political power of the oligarchs goes well beyond their campaign contributions and ability to influence elections. As a result of their ownership of media, think tanks, university chairs, and political front groups, they influence American public opinion and domestic and foreign policy in ways that few realise” (p.190). But Bernie offers no solutions to this problem. And even this list only scratches the surface of “the power of money”.
The closest Bernie comes to the root of the problem is in chapter 3. “A handful of billionaires on Wall Street wield extraordinary power over the political and economic life of our country”, he says. “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, it is Wall Street that regulates Congress” (p.297). And yet, Bernie’s very moderate solutions to this problem – disincentivising financial speculation, breaking up monopolies and regulating interest rates – rely entirely on the notion that Congress can regulate Wall Street.
If Bernie’s “democratic socialism” is to mean anything, it must mean taking back the power over the political and economic life of the country. It means democratising the economic decisions made in boardrooms and on the trading floor, securing that economic and political power in the hands of the majority.
Bernie really only has one policy to address this issue – expanding the number of worker co-operatives. “These ventures don’t need to be small, niche companies”, he says, but then announces his plan which focuses on “small- and medium-sized businesses” (p.262). With federal assistance he says, an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 SMEs could be sold to the workers who helped build them.
To put that in perspective, that’s about half the number of SMEs in little New Zealand and less than one percent of the SMEs in America. Even if Wall Street “allowed” Congress to pass Bernie’s plan, which seems unlikely, it would have no effect on the “extraordinary power” of the six huge corporations which he says control 60 percent of America’s GDP.
I give Our Revolution four stars. Unlike many of the books churned out by politicians, this one clearly wasn’t produced by a ghost-writer. Bernie’s distinctive personal voice comes through, as clear as a bell. It gets a star just for that. I hope that readers of this review will consider picking up and opening this valuable book.
It loses a star for the weaknesses in Bernie’s manifesto. But what is missing in that latter part of the book is there at the start. The power of “our revolution” to achieve “a future to believe in” comes through the rising up of the majority of the people in collective action. Or in Bernie’s own words (pp.3-4):
“During the fifteen months of the campaign there was one central point that I made over and over again, and let me repeat it here. This campaign was never just about electing a president of the United States – as enormously important as that was. This campaign was about transforming America. It was about the understanding that real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up. It takes place when ordinary people, by the millions, are prepared to stand up and fight for justice.”
• Review first published on goodreads.com. Join me there for more.
“Educating for a Social Change” is a weekly show on Wellington Access Radio 106.1FM, produced by the Wellington Workers’ Educational Association. WWEA supports adult and community education that promotes a just and equitable society in accordance with Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Their show brings you social comment, community and union news, and look at what people are doing to support a more just and equitable society. This week, I spoke with host Victoria Quade about what Unions Wellington is up to in this space.
The Board of Directors has decided not to hold an NZNO Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Wellington this September, and to press on instead with preparations for a shorter and smaller meeting via Zoom. The reason given is “uncertainty around COVID-19 alert levels and travel restrictions” (‘NZNO plans for online AGM’, June Kai Tiaki).
But if those concerns really were the decisive factors, then surely they would apply to all large NZNO gatherings held in the next few months, wouldn’t they?
In August, Te Rūnanga’s Hui ā-Tau and Indigenous Nurses Conference are going ahead face to face in Tāmaki Makaurau. The Rūnanga’s Hui and Conference usually see NZNO members travel and congregate in even greater numbers than at the NZNO AGM.
Meeting kanohi ki te kanohi is important for tauira, kaimahi hauora and tapuhi kaitiaki. It is a fundamental part of NZNO’s bicultural model. It’s good that it’s been made possible by New Zealand’s early move to COVID-19 alert level 1.
Under the terms of NZNO’s flawed Constitution, the AGM represents a very limited form of democratic control by the NZNO membership.
AGM delegates get to vote on just a handful of matters. They typically do so without consulting the members they represent, and the ballots are cast in secret so no-one ever knows how their “representative” voted.
But on paper, at least, it is still “the highest decision-making authority of NZNO”. It’s where the Board can theoretically be held to account, and where they must present their strategic direction decisions or policies set or altered in the previous year for a vote of ratification.
More importantly, the mingling and talking at AGM allows delegates from different regions and professional groups to share information and perspectives about what’s really going on in our union, at the national level. The networking during the breaks at this annual two-day event are the only real opportunity for members to do this.
So the face to face NZNO AGM is also important.
Why is the Board not allowing it to go ahead, given the certainty around COVID-19 alert levels and travel restrictions which was provided by the Government a week before the last Board meeting?
Is this very limited form of democracy now too much for them? What’s the real reason they’re preventing members from meeting together at an AGM in Wellington, while allowing Rūnanga members to meet together at a Hui in Auckland?
Grant Brookes, RN
The co-editors reply: At its April meeting, the board was presented with five options for holding the annual general meeting and con- ference, given the COVID-19 restrictions then in place and the uncertainty about how long the restrictions would last, particularly those relating to numbers able to attend events. Chief executive Memo Musa’s paper, which contained the five options, also canvassed other considerations, such as penalties incurred when cancelling the venue, flights and accommodation after a certain date. After discussion, the board, including Grant Brookes, endorsed the option to move the AGM and conference online as a basis for planning. (See also Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, June 2020, p6.) As to the indigenous nurses’ conference and hui â-tau, the co-editors understand the planned venue for the August event, the Millennium Hotel in Auckland, is being used as a quarantine facility and the conference and hui â-tau will not be held at this venue. Decisions are pending as to alternative options for the conference and hui â-tau format and venue.